There’s nothing more depressing than phantom phone syndrome. Everyone experiences it to some degree, you’re walking around, maybe you’re at work, and you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket. This happens to me all the time, I’m waiting tables, I’m going over the specials or grabbing a refill on a Diet Coke and I’ll feel it, the buzz-buzz in my pocket. And this sucks because at my restaurant, like at most restaurants I’m sure, you’re not really allowed to be on your cell phone while you’re on the floor.
But what am I going to do, go seven hours without checking my phone? That’s cute. Come on, I’ve got to check my phone. Who knows what kind of emails I’m going to get, or text messages. Maybe something big, something I’ll need to respond to right away. Probably not, but maybe. With the no cell phone thing, I’m limited to a couple of options.
One, I can try to duck away into one of the store rooms, like where they keep all of the liquor in the back, or maybe by the lockers. I’ll whip out my phone and … nothing. But I was sure I felt a tingle. It wasn’t imaginary, I definitely felt something, maybe I’m going crazy, maybe the phone company sends out phantom texts every once in a while to keeps its customers’ attention focused firmly on their cell phones.
And then maybe my boss will walk in, there’s a very real likelihood that the longer I’m hanging out back here, someone’s going to pass by, they’ll see me on my phone, it’s probably someone in charge. Are they going to write me up? Is this going to be like a formal, “Rob, we’ve caught you on your phone and now you’re officially in trouble,” type of deal? Or maybe they’ll give me one of those, “Ugh, Rob, come on, haven’t we been over this? This is really annoying, you guys always on your cell phones,” more unofficial admonishments, while I’m not technically getting in trouble, I’m still getting a once-for, I have to make eye contact and say, “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have, I just, I’m sorry,” types of apology/thank-you-for-not-writing-me-up.
Back to work, back on the floor, try to pass by all of my tables, make sure that everything’s OK, “How is everything, OK?” and three of the people at the table smile or give me a thumbs-up or something, but that fourth person is chewing, and she gives me a weird look, I can just tell she’s already planning out what she’s going to write down on Yelp, something like, “Why do these stupid waiters always wait until I’m mid-bite to come over and ask if everything’s OK? I’m eating! I’m chewing! Ugh! These people are so stupid! Leave me alone!” and then I feel my phone buzz in my pocket again. This can’t be a phantom alert, I’m pretty sure I felt two specific, distinct vibrations, the “buzz-buzz” of a text message.
But I can’t risk the supply closet again, not tonight, definitely not tonight, in fact, I probably can’t risk getting caught in the supply closet again for at least another week, I can’t become a serial offender, an established slacking-off pattern emblazoned into the consciousness of my superiors. Imagining I got off with a warning that first time, this second time, “Two times in one night?” that’s definitely going to be a write-up, “Sign here please,” making me place my signature on a piece of paper, a confession really, an admission of guilt, yes, I was on my cell phone, not once, but twice tonight. Twice.
So I’ll go to the bathroom, definitely not an ideal environment to take an informal break, but whatever, at least the door locks behind me, there’s no chance of anybody catching me in the act. But remember earlier when I wrote that there’s nothing more depressing than phantom phone syndrome? There’s actually something much more depressing. It’s taking out your phone, realizing that despite the very tactile sensation of an electronic device vibrating in your pocket, there’s nothing on the screen, no alerts, no notifications. And then you get that sudden awareness that you’re standing in the stall of a public men’s room desperately searching for messages, for some sort of communication that simply isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. Nobody’s trying to get in touch with you. And you’re hanging out in the bathroom. That’s the most depressing thing I can think of.
The night drags along. I’ll feel more phantom buzzing here and there, but I’m not going to allow myself to fall for it again. Fool me three times, shame on me, right? But my cell phone is patient. Go ahead and don’t check me, it’s whispering, I’ve got tons of phantom buzz reserves. I’ll go off regularly. How does every ten minutes sound? You think you can get through the whole night without checking to see even once if somebody might have emailed or texted you something? Anything?
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Buzzbuzzbuzzbuzzbuzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
All right, there are still two hours left to go, and if I go to the bathroom one more time, I’m liable to set off some alarms, “Hey Rob, you might want to go to a doctor, you’ve been going to the bathroom an awful lot tonight.” Nobody would ever say that to me, because it would be painfully obvious what I was really up to, checking my phone. And there are only so many men’s room visits I can stomach during a single shift.
Plan C is for when I’ve exhausted all other options. It’s about hiding in plain site. I try to get to a computer terminal ideally situated ten to fifteen feet away from the manager on duty. I want to be looking right at the boss, huddled over the screen, making it appear as if I’m hard at work. And that’s when I casually reach my left hand around my back to grab the phone out of my right pocket. I slip it in front of the restaurant computer and go about my business as if there is no phone at all.
But, and I can’t believe this, nothing? No messages? No texts? I definitely felt something. I open up the Twitter app. Zero notifications. Facebook. Nope. I’m looking on my scheduling app, my calendar, all the useless apps that I never open up or use. Which one of you is making my phone buzz? What’s going on?
I jerk my head up. Where’d the manager go? Shit. He’s to my left. He’s making a beeline. Did I get lost? Was I at the terminal for too long? I must have been. I must have been swiping between menu pages too aggressively. Is it too late to get my phone back in my pocket? It’s too late. He’s two steps away so I put my phone on the counter and cover it with a tip tray.
“Rob is everything OK?”
“Yeah boss, I was just checking to see if I’d entered in table twelve’s desserts.”
“That’s it? You looked pretty concerned.”
“Yeah boss, that’s it.”
And that’s when the phone buzzes underneath the tray, audibly. It’s actually louder, like the buzzing phone made the tip tray buzz a little too, and it’s vibrating, it’s actually moving slightly across the counter.
“Rob. Come on man. Again?”
And what can I say? “Boss, it’s not what it looks like. It’s a phantom buzz. It’s not really buzzing at all. Trust me, you’re brain’s playing tricks on you. Sir, we’ve got to be careful, spending too much time online, on the phone. You get that, right? Phantom phone syndrome? That’s a real thing, right? I’ll send you an article I read about it online. I’m totally serious here, it’s all in your head, for real.”